The E-Book Revolution

For several years now, various prophets have predicted that e-books would be the wave of the future, and… lo and behold, has just recently announced that for the first time ever for some period, e-books outsold hardcovers.  It’s to be expected that Amazon would be the first outlet to report such news, given Amazon’s emphasis on e-books and its own Kindle, and given Amazon’s appeal to the tech-savvy readers. But what exactly does this mean?

Is it the great revolution in publishing… or a sign of the end of culture in the United States and the rest of the western world?  Of course, the obvious reply to such an absurd question would be neither… but I’m not so sure that the rise of e-books doesn’t contain some elements of each.

The rise in e-book sales, especially given the marketing models and patterns in the publishing industry, is going to have a very hefty impact on true professional full-time authors, and by that I mean those authors who make their living solely by writing.  That impact is already being felt, and it’s anything but positive.  Moreover, the e-book impact is being exacerbated by other social trends, most notably the marked decrease in paperback book sales.  According to my sources in the publishing industry, initial paperback book print runs in the F&SF are averaging 40-60% fewer copies being printed than was the case for comparable books ten years ago.  Even noted “mainstream authors” who sell millions of paperback books are seeing significant drops in paperback book sales numbers.

Now that e-books are being made available, at least in my case and that of other authors, on the same day as hardcovers, any e-book sale that replaces a hard-cover sale results in a direct drop in income for the author.  Depending on the author’s royalty rates and sales numbers, that drop in income could be as little as 10 cents per copy or as high as $2.60 per copy.  As for paperback books, the impact varies by when the e-book is sold, because the agency model has a declining price for the e-book over time.  In general, however, authors will theoretically make more money by selling e-books than paperback books.  That’s because for the first year or so, when paperback sales are generally the highest, the e-book royalty rate may result in a higher per copy return to the author than from a paperback.  The problem here, though, lies in three unanswered questions.  First, how much will piracy reduce paying hardcover, paperback, and e-book sales?  Second, will all retailers report accurately “straight” download sales?  In the case of paperbacks, there is inventory control because the retailer either has to pay for the book or return the stripped cover for a return refund.  Physical items provide for a check against intentional undercounting.  What checks exist for an electronic item with no physical presence?  Third, what happens after several years when the e-book price drops to essentially nothing?  At that point, the author’s backlist sales revenues plummet, and the so-called “long-tail” provides far less revenue than would a paperback.

The other problem is the proliferation of “reader” platforms.  Until or unless this situation is rectified and standardized formats compatible across readers are instituted, there will be very few independent electronic “small presses.”

Based on what I’ve seen so far, although it’s likely to take several years to sort itself out, the combination of e-books and existing reading/publishing trends is going to result in an increasing decline in the number of midlist authors who are able to support themselves by writing, as well as a decline in the income of A-list writers.

As for the impact on reading and cultural trends… that’s an area where there are far fewer hard facts, but I speculate, and it’s purely speculation at this point, that the results will be mixed.  The screen readers, such as the Kindle and the Nook and all the others, are already a boon to older readers because they can enlarge the type, and more and more older readers are finding this greatly increases what is available for them to read.  Since these readers are more interested, in general, in reading than in whipping through stripped-down action novels and the like, they will support to some degree continuation of more traditional books.  On the other hand, a considerable number of the younger generations, who are more likely to be involved in screen-multi-tasking, already have manifested a certain impatience with novelistic complexity that isn’t reflected in “action” magic or technology.  Whether this will result in even greater pressure for action-oriented simplicity in the e-book market remains to be seen, but the vampire/supernatural crazes in bookselling suggests strongly that may well be the case.

As with most revolutions, a lot of innocents are going to be affected, and not necessarily positively, from readers to writers to small publishers… and I’ve probably only touched the surface here.

21 thoughts on “The E-Book Revolution”

  1. hob says:

    Mr Modesitt has your publisher or any publishers you know of suggested solutions to this problem/problems or are they too structurally rigid from a business point to effect changes right now?
    Also have you ever considered introducing merchandise with your novels–for example you mention wine a lot in your writings and maybe your readership would like to drink a label from one of your worlds to experience for themselves.

    Or do you believe that the art of writing should be above such practices? What I mean is, which do you personally find more important–that the writer should earn enough only through writing or is it alright to earn indirectly?

    1. I don’t have a problem with a writer merchandising himself or herself based on the writings. I’ve tried to get games and comics done based on my work. They haven’t worked out so far. Things like wine and other merchandise would take too much time from writing for me, besides which I’m better at writing than at selling physical merchandise.

  2. Robert The Addled says:

    The ONLY thing e-books have going for them in my life would be convenience for traveling and for space considerations. I DO keep about 160 HTML version books stored on my phone for that reason (BAEN Free Library and the BAEN bound-in CDs), 95% are books that I already owned in hardcopy, or purchased after getting hooked on a series via snippets or the full E-version. Reading a hardcopy text is a multisensory experience, while mere text on a screen is lifeless, and often confused with your work life (for the desk job types like myself). I still fondly remember the images and slightly musty smell of the library at my elementary school in the late 1970’s thru the early 80’s. A HUGE minus in my eyes is that they are generally not cross-platform transferrable (must keep the same reader brand). Additionally, E-books go against the very lending library systems that have allowed me to enter so many different worlds over the last 3 decades. (I cut my SF&F teeth on Danny Dunn – You can’t even FIND those any more). Yet another problem – digital copyright has confused the issue so greatly that archival systems are being legally prevented from preserving our history. Paper documents have a well established pedigree for archive and preservation – not so with the newer video and electronic media.

  3. François says:

    I’m a long time reader and I’ve also crossed over to the E-Books.
    For me it was mostly a practical thing. I move twice in the last 2 years and moving a dozen boxes of books each time made me realize that books aren’t quite space effective (and heavy too).

    I’ve long thought about it and the for me it happened when i found one at 150$ that was decent. I imagined its the same price as a decent bookshelf. I’ve owned hundreds of books and have had to give away many due to space issues. For me having a digital format of the hundreds of books I read on occasion is a wonderful concept.

    well enough of me but I wanted to comment on what I’ve seen so far…

    I appreciate that there is a possible ecological benefit to having millions of pages of paper saved through this process. (though I’m not sure of the ecological cost of production of e-readers, I prefer to assume efficiency in that area.)

    I understand that the possible cultural impact is similar to the change that happened with the apparition of the printing machine. Scribes and bookmakers lost much but in the end proliferation of art and culture created a greater good. I hope that the result will be the same. I already find it hard to find old prints and old scripts that are out of copyrights (Such as much of the work and poems of Robert E Howard) but e-books are relatively easy to find.
    I admit, I’m afraid that the media (internet) for distributing the books will likely make it harder to start small writers on a market that seems already hard to breach… and worst off I fear that many good author will be forgotten for more “Harry Potters” and Dan Brown “work” (which I also find are lacking a certain dept…)

    I’m also curious about the impact of authors having access to directly publishing their books through distributors like Amazon (for higher royalties).

    And this I would love to have your thoughts on….

    1. François says:

      PS: I’ve kept all hard copies of your books. They deserve the shelf space.

  4. hockey fan says:

    To be honest I like the feel of holding a brand new book in my hands. I also think reading from a sheet of paper is better for your eyes than reading pixels displayed on some kind of screen. The employees at my local barnes and noble always pressure me to buy a Nook and to buy e-books, but I doubt I will any time soon. Also, technology is continually going out of date and being replaced. I worry about the longevity of anything stored on electronics, rather than a physical material like paper.

  5. Tim Warren says:

    Sorry for the disjointed flow writing, I’m tech guy not a writer… I hope that the change is not having a great impact on you personally. I have had a kindle for the past year and it has changed my experience. In that time purchased 72 books.. yes all except two are sci-fi/fantasy. Before this my average was between 20 and 30 books a year, depending on space and the patience of my wife. I live in the New York City area which has many large chain bookstores but the retail space dedicated to sci-fi/fantasy shrinks by the month. Thanks to the kindle I have read authors that would never have had exposure too such Marc del Franco, Anton Strout, Harry Connolly, etc. That and I have been reading books that are hard to find or re-release of older books from the 80’s and 90’s. I think that as your catalog is converted to digital you will find that more people start reading your earlier works based on your recent books. For a fan of authors like yourself that have had a large number of books published, when I start looking for earlier works and they are out of print and the used book business has dried up, its very frustrating to wait for reprints like I did for Glen Cook’s Chronicles of The Black Company.

    There are many authors I enjoy reading but would never spend the money on their hard backs.. Simon R. Green’s spy books are a fun read but $25 and a permanent place in my library is out of the question so I would wait the year for its paperback release and buy it then. But I was able to buy it on the kindle for $14 rather than the $20 boarders discount would have given me. If I waited for the paperback I would have spent $7.99 so Green actually got more money out of me.

    1. Bob Howard says:

      My personal library is currently at about 2,000 volumes and I’m at the point of subtracting one for every new purchase. My Kindle allows me to not only add books without need for shelf space but also, as Tim points out, allows me to try authors I might not otherwise, even through my local used book store. I’m thinking that the net result for authors like Mr. Modesitt will be a gain over time, with new readers trying his earlier works that might not be readily available, or that might otherwise only come through used book sales, which bring no revenue to the author.

      Certainly, the Amazon-driven expectation for $9.99 new issue works is unreasonable, and not good for the long-term health of the business, so it’s up to the more popular authors to work together to hold the line on prices, as your publisher has done.

      Anyway, I love my Kindle, though I’ll always prefer the experience of the “real thing.” I suspect there are many like myself who have all of Mr. Modesitt’s works in book form, but are steadily adding the ebook versions for traveling and such.

  6. Mayhem says:

    An interesting corrolary to the idea of SF&F print runs shrinking however, is that it is becoming increasingly hard to get hold of many titles.

    Back in NZ, there was a very strong SF&F scene while I was growing up, with all the major bookstores carrying a good range, which slowly narrowed, and then most of the satellite mall stores would only carry the same 30-40 titles. If you wanted range you had to go to the central city store which went from twenty sets of shelves to ten to four in the late 90s before slowly building up again to average around 7-8 in say 2006.
    I’m now based in London, and most chain stores have around 2-3 sets of shelves, again all with the exact same range of titles.

    How can we expect your average book buyer to even pick up a new author when it is extremely difficult to even find a copy of their books in the first place? Noone carries anything but the latest release, and if you find something you like which is usually a trilogy, you can’t even find the preceeding volumes to give it a go.

    In your own case, I find most stores will carry one or two of the SF books, probably with Alectors Choice and Darknesses and if you are lucky, two recluce books, usually Natural Ordermage & Mageguard of Hamor.
    And yet you are someone with an extensive back catalogue which simply isn’t available outside specialist SF&F shops in London, not exactly somewhere I would consider a backwater.

    And people wonder why Amazon started to do so well.

  7. Mayhem says:

    Another thought which isn’t supported by any evidence though, I wonder if libraries aren’t able to buy as wide a range of titles as they used to?

    I mean, a library generally buys most of its stock in hardcover due to the book lifespan being so much greater.
    With the way councils are being forced to focus funding decisions, I would suspect that funding for libraries tends to remain at a constant level, while the price of books has slowly crept up meaning that fewer books could be bought and then the politics of exactly what titles to buy starts to come into play. Unless your local library had a vocal supporter of a particular genre, I would imagine that genre would steadily decline, and that prevents people lending the books, which enhances the decline and so on.

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  10. Alan says:

    There is a standard – EPUB. It’s accepted by all current reading systems. Unfortunately in the case of the Kindle, you have to “email” it to Amazon for conversion, but that still counts in my book. Baen ( even have it set up so that “email to Kindle” is one of the options in their own store. Unless one is trying to sell “copy-protected” versions :-/.

    I’m curious about the agency model assertions here as well. AIUI, the essence of the “agency model” is that the publisher gets to choose the retail price (with some sort of fixed margin). I.e. if “the e-book price drops to essentially nothing”, that’s a marketing decision by the publisher.

    I don’t see much use in comparing print numbers with those 10 years ago either. If there’s a decline due to ebooks, it can’t have happened until 2007-2010, or more realistically 2009-2010 [1]. Ebook growth isn’t the only change.

    Piracy – well, there’s very little you can do about it in the negative sense. Other than suppressing the market for good reading devices. But that only works for so long. We’ve had the technology for useful readers since the PalmPilot. “Media consumption” devices are now taking off (iPod touch / iPad etc, let alone “ordinary” smart phones). Complaining won’t help any more.

    Certain publishing executives claim they’ve learnt the lesson of the music industry and want to avoid repeating mistakes – hollow laugh. If that’s the case, they wouldn’t be spending money on DRM.

    There’s certainly plenty to grumble about. I’m grateful that you don’t feel the need to attack obvious strawmen. (Scalzi managed it – search [3] – but I suspect it would ill suit your style of writing here). Right now it does look like a matter of technology companies screwing everyone else over. From the consumer side, it’s easy to blame publishers who use intrusive DRM rather than technology companies who sold their wares under false premises.

    What I hope will help are nuanced explanations like Stross’s CMAP posts (Common Misconceptions About Publishing) – the insider comments were particularly good [2]. And proof-of-concepts like Baen. According to Wikipedia, Baen have had a two-price model – $15 for early ebook access – since _1999_. [4]

    As a customer it’s very useful to have a nuanced explanation of why the market is so screwed up,
    and suggestions as to what sort of companies have actually been making an effort to improve things.

    [1] See Wikipedia for release dates of Amazon Kindle, Sony PRS-505, and the ePUB standard – all in 2007.

    [2], see “specials” sidebar on the right.



  11. Anne says:

    EBooks are no real substitute for the printed word. oddly enough(!) paper is still the mandatory Archival Standard for preservation. I am a Librarian and I know what I speak of.
    Those of us who read extensively read in any format we can find, but I myself prefer the print version of most things will continue buying them, so please keep publishing. I love all your books and have hard-back copies of them all

  12. Alison Hamway says:

    I enjoy reading (e-books preferred for space reasons, but I also enjoy paperbacks and hardcovers). I do not understand why the author should be paid less for an e-book sale compared to a regular book. I DO understand why the publisher would be paid less — they sell to a few big e-tailers (and then Amazon or B&N sells to their customers), and they don’t pay for paper, printing, shipping. But I truly don’t grasp why the author should be paid less for an e-book sale compared to an actual physical book sale.

  13. Mike W says:

    I haven’t willingly tossed a book since highschool. But, not that I facing retirement in a couple of months I cannot continue buying $50-70 dollars of books each month (my current budget.) I have all your books in hardback having just finished the 3rd volume of Imager. However, truth be told, I can buy an eBook for half the price of its dead-tree version.

    Baen Publishing has been in the forefront of electronic publishing producing ebooks for years. They’ve found that even for books in their free library, sales per author continues to grow. In addition their direct sales via their Webscriptions has a better margin for them and the author—fewer middle-men taking a chunk of the proceeds.

    I would submit this: eBooks works for Baen and keeps Baen’s stable of writer paid and satisfied. Why can other publishing house not do the same? I think it more of a paradigm shift for the business and writers more than anything else.

  14. Duncan says:

    I live in Africa.

    Amazon’s territorial controls restrict eBook availability to my region in what I consider to be an unfair manner. I understand that 20th century style publication models require such artificial price / availability differntials but in the modern era, considering literacy levels in my region, these practices are unhelpful and even cruel. We even pay $2 for essentially free eBook conversions of Project Gutenberg texts.

    I enjoy your work and will not resort to piracy but I do not anticipate you deriving much monetary benefit from the second hand bookstore sale which will ultimately result from my desire to continue reading your Recluse series.

    Hopefully, over time, sanity will prevail.

  15. Michael Metz says:

    I live in Germany,
    it is extremly hard in germany to get any complete Science Fiction or science Fantasy series in english.
    It ususally means i need to go to a specialist bookstore, that orders from a specialist importer and it ends up that i have to pay around 30-40 € for a book being sold for 9 USD.
    If you need a Book from a difrent publisher you will need to find another Bookstore , with a difrent specialist Importer and pay even more.
    The mainline Bookstores with their Importers often only have the current Book in the program (like book 9 in a 13 book Series, good luck finding out who will let you get book 1-8). I also got comments like : oh, the Publishers prohibit that the US-Print version is sold in Europe, you need to buy the version from the European Publisher-partner.
    In so far i am glad for E-Books. Also i believe that most readers like me, will rather pay for an official non pirated E-book in order to compensate the writers we love to read. But it takes the writers and Publishers to make that possible to us. Don’t insist on copyright variants that will geographically lock out readers. With E-books writers and publishers need one (1) outlet for ebooks and everyone in the word can purchase it from there, please stop the idiocy of locking out Europe , Asia or Africa from reading Books published in America, just so we have to buy localized versions.
    Believe it or not, we readers are mature enough to choose the language that we read, those that want a localized version will buy that instead of the english one.
    And to support what others wrote before, i too did read some of the Free Books at Baens free Library. Authors i would never have considered looking for, and where i now bought the new releases over the Baen E-Book portal.

  16. David says:

    Since a couple more years have passed, could you revisit this topic Mr Modesitt? I see that a good number of your books are now available on amazon via ebook format and would like to hear your current thoughts and how well this is working out for you.

    Is it better or worse than you were expecting profit wise, piracy or the lack of same, etc?

    1. It may be a bit before I address e-books again in detail, but I find the situation far more worrisome than most people are willing to say.

  17. David says:

    Thanks, I look forward to reading your thoughts on the subject.

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